Each June, two undergraduate students address thousands of proud parents and excited graduates in Pauley Pavillion.
While the two commencement speakers may come from different academic backgrounds and personal paths, they undergo an application, audition and rehearsal process before reaching the podium bearing UCLA’s seal. From screening speeches for content to assessing students’ physical presentation, the four-member UCLA commencement planning team holds applicants to a standard of excellence, ensuring the ceremony leaves graduates with a message to remember, said Karen Mack, a communication lecturer.
“It is a time of celebration in addition to being a very serious milestone – so the speech must be engaging,” Mack said.
As a member of the selection committee, Mack said graduating College of Letters and Science students interested in applying should present a speech that is both relatable and engaging. Having been a coach and mentor for commencement speakers for the past three years, she works to refine speakers’ content and execution in the weeks leading up to commencement.
In the first step of the process, applicants anonymously submit a written draft of their four-minute commencement speech, a congratulations to graduating seniors and a welcome to friends, family and faculty in attendance. To narrow down the applicants, the committee grades each draft using a rubric that gauges the speech’s content for its ability to resonate with the ceremonies’ diverse audiences.
“We look for stories … and themes that are universal or relatable for the entire audience – moments that are enjoyable and might result in a pause (or) cheering,” Mack said.
Since April, Leopoldo Albea, the director of communications for the Undergraduate Students Association Council Office of the President, has also served on the committee. As a graduating fourth-year sociology student, Albea said he provided a student perspective throughout the selection process. The selected commencement speakers and their speeches, Albea said, relate to the graduating student body and depict the overall experiences of a UCLA student.
“I feel like I thrived. I feel like I conquered, I feel like I succeeded," he said. “And that is exactly how (their speeches) made me feel.”
Of the nearly 30 applicants this year, half were chosen to deliver their speech for the selection panel in Murphy Hall. Members of the committee assessed the auditioned speeches based on a holistic rating of five points. Afterwards, the team discussed the positive and negative aspects of each student’s delivery.
“We ask them to read the speech as if it were commencement, even though we're in a conference room and it's nothing like Pauley Pavilion filled with people,” Mack said.
The applicants with the most successful delivery are enthusiastic, passionate and confident behind the podium, she said. Selected speakers also enunciated well, and spoke at an appropriate pace – not too mechanically or too slowly, she explained. Such qualities, Mack said, are necessary to engage the thousands of audience members during the two-hour ceremonies.
In 2014, Emily Yamane opened the UCLA admissions portal to read that she had been waitlisted.
She wrote a 7,000-character essay detailing her eligibility to be a UCLA student and submitted a Statement of Intent to Register to another university in the UC system. Nearly four years later, the fourth-year applied mathematics student will lead her fellow members of the 2018 graduating class in turning their tassels to the left.
Yamane will speak at Friday’s 2 p.m. commencement ceremony. Despite her initial waitlist status, Yamane said her fruitful experience at UCLA, filled with leadership opportunities in USAC, Campus Tours and the Nikkei Student Union, heavily influenced her legacy-themed commencement speech.
“I’ve just had such an amazing time being at UCLA. That’s kind of a big reason I wanted to be a speaker,” she said. “I’m walking away with one of the best social experiences I could have possibly asked for.”
Yamane said she thought about being a commencement speaker before she started her final year as an undergraduate student at UCLA. Her friends and previous commencement speakers Sujith Cherukumilli and Omer Hit inspired her to address her graduating class, she said.
The inspiration for the speech’s content, however, came from a conversation Yamane had before she stepped foot on the UCLA campus. As high school seniors at Lodi High School in Lodi, California, Yamane and a friend discussed the legacy they would leave behind.
“That really stuck with me throughout college,” she said. “(I’m) thinking about making sure I’m doing things so people will remember who I am, ... remember my name as they’re walking around.”
Leaving a significant mark on campus became one of the main themes of Yamane’s speech. When the online application came out in April, Yamane said she was already prepared to submit her speech after practicing it multiple times in front of her roommates.
After she applied, Yamane received an email stating she would audition her speech in front of the selection committee. A couple of days following her in-person audition, Yamane was waiting for a math class with a friend on the Kerckhoff patio when she received yet another email from the committee.
“I was like ‘oh my God, oh my God’ ... I think I got it,’” she said. “I opened up the email and we started screaming and jumping up and down.”
Since then, Yamane has refined and practiced her speech under the guidance of Mack. Mack and Albea agreed that Yamane embodied UCLA well because as a tour guide, she represents the UCLA student body to visitors and prospective students. She captures the essence of student life at UCLA, Albea added.
“I think that's what made her very strong as a commencement speaker, because the content of her speech was just relatable, and any Bruin can listen to it and be like, ‘I feel you,’” he said.
Yamane’s thoughtfulness in conveying her UCLA journey, Mack said, played into her selection as one of the two commencement speakers. From the nearly 100 tours she conducted to the social circles she formed, Yamane used only one word to describe her entire UCLA journey: genuine.
“I’ve had amazing experiences, but I’ve also had awful experiences with things going on with me, my family and my personal life. I’ve dealt with a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” she said. “I think (the speech is) a really genuine shot of what a college student goes through.”
Going into his last quarters as an undergraduate, Hoang Nguyen listed all his goals for the upcoming school year on a whiteboard.
His goals included getting a job, reading more, writing more, learning data science and speaking at commencement. Selected as the commencement speaker for Friday’s 7 p.m. ceremony, Nguyen could now check off at least one of his listed goals. The fourth-year political science student said his identity as a Bruin influenced his need to address the graduating class of 2018.
“Going through four years at UCLA, going through so many different experiences ... has shaped me, molded me into who I am today,” he said. “I think my UCLA experience is inextricably linked to who I am and who I am writing this speech.”
Nguyen said he also watched commencement speaker Cherukumilli at the 2017 ceremony and thought he too could speak in front of thousands in Pauley Pavilion. As an immigrant from Vietnam, Nguyen has been involved with the Vietnamese Student Union and has performed in numerous culture nights at Royce Hall.
Despite his experience as a performer, Nguyen said he hadn’t done much formal public speaking prior to submitting his application. He said he procrastinated in the speech-writing process and wrote his near 600-word speech mere hours before submission. He received an email requesting him to audition and four days later, another inviting him to speak at the evening commencement ceremony.
“I was pretty ecstatic and pretty excited when I got the email. Two minutes later, I got an email saying that I got the Chancellor’s Service Award (which was) an added bonus on top of everything.” he said. “That day was also my anniversary for my 12th year in America.”
Nguyen’s story of self-discovery and overcoming personal struggles struck the selection committee, Albea said. The powerful speech Nguyen presented resonated with the team since he represents success and achievement, he added.
“That’s what he culminates (from his) journey at UCLA,” Albea said. “In creating this experience, you create yourself.”
While writing his speech, Nguyen said he wanted to keep it authentic to his personal story and wrote it for himself. Since then, he has been working with Mack to improve his wording and delivery.
“I do believe that oratory should raise the heart rate. It should bring an audience to their feet and resonate in the context of graduation,” Nguyen said.
He said he intends for his speech to be authentic and share a significant central message relevant to his peers: take action and create change. Though the speech calls on graduating students to enact change, Nguyen said, it’s better for the call to action to come from a fellow peer.
“I want to disabuse us of the idea that we don’t have agency – we do, we are the next generation,” he said. “We are graduating from a top university that demands us to take action … to make the world a better … and a more equitable place for everyone to live in.”
Yamane and Nguyen’s speeches each reflect on their different UCLA journeys and involve relatable themes like legacy and agency. However, Mack said, both speakers evoke feelings of accomplishment and pride that come with being a Bruin.
“The one thing they have in common is their love of UCLA and their desire to be front and center and represent the class,” Mack said. “That sense of being in the Bruin family … this sense of pride in the university echoes through every single one of the speeches.”